This Is What Living With the Virus Would Have Meant

It’s New Year’s Day and, as is traditional, I am laid low by ill health. I am not, to my knowledge, hungover. But no matter, when the year just gone hangs over into the new one, and does so in such an unpleasant, concerning manner.

Now it has been an article of faith, for a long time, and for a large number of people, that this January is going to be rough. This was expected long before the government attempted an amnesty to allow people to give each other covid for Christmas, and before that amnesty was hastily abandoned.

We don’t know the effect the new variant of the coronavirus has had on the early arrival of January’s predicted case loads – but we can probably assume that even without it, things were anticipated to get roughly as bad as they now have got. It was always likely to go like this.

Let’s reiterate how bad things are.

Almost at the top of my road, in Westcliff-on-Sea, sits Southend University Hospital. It is where my brothers and I were born. I walk past the hospital every day that I can on the way to a nearby park, and on the face of things, one might not be able to see that how badly things are going.

There are a few more signs outside nearby homes thanking the health service itself, and its workers. There are a little fewer cars in the car park as non-essential services have been cancelled and progressively scaled back. There are fewer nurses standing at the bus stops, and fewer staff and patients standing near the fences, smoking. Perhaps their comfort breaks have been scaled back too.

Occasionally, from my office window a street away, I notice that there are more ambulances proportional to the general traffic – at all hours of the day and into the early hours – than any time last year. But again, since my home is not on their primary route, it’s not constant. Unlike some in New York early last year, I can still sleep at night for lack of sirens.

All of these things might be conscripted into an argument that, in my town (seven day average: 1011.9 positive tests per 100,000 residents) things are almost normal. It’s an argument very many are inclined to make.

Sadly for them, and for those such people deceive, it’s not at all true.

A couple of days ago, it was reported that Southend Hospital and the trust that runs it are begging staff to cancel their time off. In the next ten days, hospital sources told the local paper, they have up to 1,200 unfilled shifts and are in need of bodies.

Many associated with the hospital now talk among themselves on social media of queues of many ambulances outside the hospital, unable to unload their patients, some of whom will, as a consequence, die in the backs of these vehicles and not in the building.

All of this could have been predicted, and indeed, it was predicted. Exponential growth in an infectious disease has these very effects. January is a bad time of year to be ill. Healthcare capacity, once exceeded, spells great suffering for many. The second waves of pandemics are often the worst.

Who knows what the seven-day death rate will prove this week, but the last two days of the year saw close to a thousand deaths recorded apiece.

With each new day offering record-setting or near-record numbers of positive tests, not only does it seem inevitable that things will get worse; it seems also iron-cast that all who spoke of last month’s rise in cases as a ‘casedemic’ without the deaths to show for it should retreat from public view, overcome by shame, if they were possessed of any.

There is little point in stating that again – nor is there use in reminding readers that many of the same people claimed that, in the late summer, the virus may have disappeared for good, never to reappear – all by itself.

Nor is there much point in reiterating that the chancellor of the exchequer, presumably buoyed by what now looks rather like fraudulent summertime popularity, had the gall to bring in crank experts in order to dissuade the prime minister from trying to hold back this current wave as it began to wash its way in.

Instead, let’s rewind a little less far. To November, when all this was visible on the horizon.

Our dramatis personae are a series of Conservative MPs who have been throwing fits of various kinds in a socially distanced Commons chamber for much of the year. They announced a ‘Covid Recovery Group’, whose name may imply that its members hope more people must be infected, and could therefore have the opportunity to recover from covid.

One phrase among many stood out in this announcement from the group’s chairman – complete with boilerplate about how ‘lockdowns’ likely do more damage than the disease which has in the last three days killed more than two-and-a-half thousand people. It’s the injunction that then, in November 2020, the country really ought to find a way to ‘live with the virus’.

This is a phrase which we ought not to forget as things get predictably worse. It was designed likely as a phrase for a future born of fantasy, one that could never have occurred: where the virus continued to spread, but not to increase its rate of spread; where people continued to die of covid, but not enough to justify more action or public disquiet; where restrictions could be increasingly painted as unnecessary and onerous, and where their abandonment, even in the face of mass infection, might prove arguable.

If suffering and deaths could just be kept below an especially egregious threshold, these MPs might be successful in pursuing their petty pet projects.

This phrase and its intentions have proven laughable in the face of what has come since. Allowing a virus of this kind to spread meant allowing it to spread like this. There is no cause to argue that we live with a virus which is causing so many to die now quite so quickly.

Many of the CRG have decided to abandon their particular arrow of their rhetorical quiver and instead to suggest that perhaps we might want to speed up vaccination of the vulnerable – pretty please.

As the phrase outlives its usefulness to those who coined it, it is perhaps wise not to forget quite so easily as they have. Not just because in this country where people can say whatever they like, and predict simply everything, in the press without expecting or seeing a single consequence in the future – it might be useful to begin to enforce some standards for collective memory.

But also because, most notably – what we are seeing now, seasonably inevitable or not, is what ‘living with the virus’ is like. It is what any move towards living with the virus was always going to be like. And it would be good to remember that, in order that those who worked in favour of what we now see before us are never allowed, however conveniently, to forget it.

This essay was originally published at Correspondence, an occasional journal.

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